Seattle light rail bells will ring louder for safety

In an effort to protect people at crosswalks in South Seattle, security officials are putting more sound into Sound Transit by increasing the volume of train bells as they enter a station.

Train bells that rang at 80 decibels will ring at 90 decibels this month.

Collisions with cars or pedestrians have averaged around one per month since the Link 1 line opened in 2009. A louder train alert can cut out distractions from traffic noise, music or personal displays competing for attention.

The six-month pilot project is primarily focused on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, which has three surface stations. But louder bells will ring at any of the 19 tunnel, elevated and level stops from Northgate to Angle Lake, and where trains pass through street intersections.

“It is absolutely necessary that people hear us and get people’s attention,” said David H. Wright, Sound Transit’s chief security officer.

Turning up the volume is one of the easiest solutions Sound Transit can try, as it chooses from a menu of 53 potential security changes under consideration. Other ideas include reducing the 35mph cruise speed of trains, curb lights that flash when trains are near major intersections, or small gates that block left-turning cars until drivers get a green arrow.

Of 168 collisions involving trains from spring 2009 to spring 2022, a total of 30 pedestrians involved crossed a level crossing and four people wandered or were lying on the tracks, according to a Seattle Times review of accident reports. Subway operators also reported dozens of near hits. Due to the slender layout of the mid-stations, it is impossible to know for certain whether a person will swing towards the station platform or cross the tracks until it’s too late to stop a train.

This spring, a a train hit a woman in a pedestrian crossing at Othello station as she made her way to the tracks while using her mobile phone. In recent years, a cyclist in an uninjured crash wore headphones, while an injured pedestrian told investigators she never heard the train decelerate, according to crash reports.

A sound of 80 decibels is comparable to an alarm clock or city traffic; 90 decibels looks like a hair dryer, a truck or a motorcycle, depending on one Western Washington University guide.

Helmet use is more common than when the line opened in 2009, hence the need for stronger warnings, Marshall Maurer said, director of Link Transportation. Costs are close to zero, except for half an hour of labor per car to adjust their control consoles, he said. Bell sounds emanate from a loudspeaker above the cabin window.

Train operators can always resort to louder horns when people are not clearing the way or during emergency stops. And every day, passengers can hear operators honk up to 13 times as they leave Sodo station, a non-residential area where people walk towards the tracks from many angles.

There have already been other tweaks, such as new illuminated signs that read “Another train is coming” when northbound and southbound trains converge at a station.

street scenes

The busiest pedestrian junction is Othello station, where some trains were louder on Tuesday morning, while others were yet to be sorted. Some operators pressed the thumb-activated bell button during a sound, while others followed the operating rule that prescribes three dings or more. A train rang eight times.

“With more noise, you can tell the train is on its way,” said neighbor Ervin Lawson, who uses a train-bus combination three or four days a week to get to Beacon Hill. “People are inundated [by] whatever they’re focused on, not properly paying attention, and almost hit by a train.

Angelique Melvin, on her way to her waterside retail job, wears her headphones at the station, but says she can hear train bells. “I just don’t cross when I see the train coming,” she says. Melvin said louder bells would help because many people listen to music around crosswalks, often with noise-canceling headphones.

A gray squawk box above the station entrance provides a separate speaker that emits noise in all directions as trains arrive.

“They’re loud enough already and you can hear them a 10-minute walk away,” said Theodoric Greenleaf, taking the train to the University of Washington. “Don’t get me wrong, I love safety tech, but this one seems a bit unnecessary, considering how loud it is.” However, Greenleaf said he endorsed a low-cost test.

The train-mounted speakers face forward, so people have to be close to the tracks to notice the maximum volume.

Sound Transit is not aware of similar testing by peer agencies, spokesman John Gallagher said. Officials here rely on rail operators to report near-misses and their experiences, to create before-and-after comparisons.

Train bells are exempt from City of Seattle noise regulations, said Bryan Stevens, spokesman for the Department of Construction and Inspections. The relevant municipal code allows “warning devices or alarms that do not operate continuously for more than 30 minutes per incident”.

Washington State Industrial Safety Code requires hearing protection or noise reduction if workers experience 85 decibels for prolonged periods, more severe exposure than intermittent ringing.

Brian Sherlock, security specialist for the Amalgamated Transit Union, said he was unaware of bell noise experiments conducted by other North American agencies. Since the volume decreases with square distance, the sounds of the bells disperse, he said. “Light stimuli are much better.”

In the mid-2010s, King County Metro tested 90 decibels “talking buses” from which a high-pitched female voice warned people, in English and Spanish, not to approach a turning articulated bus. Portland Tri-Met also tried them. “The noise drove operators and residents near affected intersections crazy with little benefit,” Sherlock recalled.

all along the line

During the national Rail Safety Week in late September, transit staff spoke to people at stations and handed out souvenirs. The “Look Both Ways” slogan will soon be painted on walkways next to railroad crossings, Wright said.

A joint team of Sound Transit, Metro (which operates Light Rail Line 1) and SDOT is still studying the 53 safety concepts. A full report on local options, costs and consequences won’t be released until the first or second quarter of 2023, Wright said. Many are based on new or pilot projects from the Los Angeles Metro.

“There will always be risks in running trains. The only way to eliminate that risk is not to run trains,” Wright said.

Of the ideas that are getting serious consideration, the most expensive are crosswalk and solid road barriers. These require approximately $1 million per intersection, but Sound Transit’s costs would be higher due to its tight medians. The agency must either remove the traffic lanes or purchase private property at each location to make room for the portals.

A complete grade separation, to move the overhead or underground tracks, would require well over a billion dollars, plus the hassle of building the neighborhood. This is not explored by Sound Transit.

Jose P. Rogers